The following information on blood trails and trailing wounded deer comes from Chapter 6 of How to Hunt Deer by Edward A. Freeman. How to Hunt Deer is also available to purchase in print.
When trailing conditions are good, many hunters are apt to be careless in stalking deer, unless they are quite positive of the deer’s exact position. I have often tracked a deer to its bed when I have had small chance of killing it there, but with the knowledge that I could follow its tracks to what might be a more favorable location where my chances for a kill might be better. This method of hunting involves a combination of trailing and stalking and the hunter must know when to confine his attention to the tracks and when to start his stalk on the deer’s new location.
As a rule, a man who is trailing a deer may hurry along on the trail as long as the tracks show that the deer is running. When the animal slows to a walk, the man can still move right along as long as the deer continues to travel a comparatively straight course, but as soon as the trail becomes erratic, it is time for the hunter to change to a cautious stalking procedure. Any abrupt change in a deer’s course is a warning for the hunter to use caution until he is able to determine the cause of the change.
Sometimes a deer will run into danger that will cause it to change its course. In such cases, an increase in speed will indicate the reason for the change of course. If there is no change of pace, a change of course is an indication that the deer is heading for an observation post where it can watch its back trail, or it is moving to a resting place. In either case, the hunter should leave the trail and stalk the probable location of the deer. If he should be unable to bag the animal at this place, he can relocate the trail and resume trailing. This procedure may be continued indefinitely.
A deer seldom resorts to any evasive action other than speed, until it has been trailed for some time, and when it does try to deceive the trailer, its bag of tricks is limited to those used by most other animals. If it has the time, it will circle, crossing and recrossing its own tracks, leaving a maze for the hunter to untangle. When I am sure that a deer has done this, I will circle the maze, following the outside tracks, until I find where the animal has left the area, instead of trying to follow all of its twistings and turnings.
Deer will often “back track” for a distance, jumping off to one side of the trail where the track will not be easily seen. This can be confusing if the snow is dry enough to partly fill the tracks and the hunter is concentrating on the country ahead with only an occasional glance at the tracks. Close attention to the trail will show that the snow is thrown ahead as the deer travels. If the snow has been thrown both ways, the deer has traveled both ways over the trail.
Deer will sometimes take to water in an attempt to lose the hunter. When they follow brooks, it is a simple matter for the hunter to watch the shore lines in order to find the spot where they emerge from the water. When they enter a pond or lake, the trailer is very apt to assume that the deer have crossed over it. Deer seldom do this except at a narrow place on a large body of water. Usually they will swim or wade along the shore until they think that they have thrown the follower off the trail and then they leave the water.
I was trailing one day when two dogs entered the chase and drove a buck into a nearby lake. When I arrived at the shore, the dogs had abandoned the chase. I walked along the shore of the lake for about two hundred yards until I found where the deer had left the water and I resumed trailing. Incidentally, that was the only deer I ever followed that failed to give me any warning when it was about to lie down. It ran for almost a half-mile in almost a straight line, then dropped to the ground to rest. When I jumped him, it was so unexpected that I failed to get a shot.
These three tricks, with variations, are about all that a deer will use in trying to throw the hunter off the trail.
One variation of the circling trick which is very exasperating is when deer run to a place where other deer are, or have been feeding, and there is a readymade maze of tracks to confuse the hunter. Sometimes deer run to the location of other deer which are resting, in an effort to transfer the hunter’s attention to them. Sometimes these tricks work to the hunter’s advantage and he is able to bag a deer other than the one he is following. When this happens to me, I have a feeling that the bagged deer is the result of an accident and not of my own efforts.
I remember one large buck which I jumped one snowy day when there were no deer moving and tracks were practically nonexistent. I followed him at a fast pace until he began to show signs of stopping and then I slowed to a stalking pace, watching ahead and to each side of the trail. Coming to a windfall about thirty yards to my right, I saw a deer’s head and neck above and beyond the blowdown. I didn’t stop for a second look, but shot the animal as soon as I knew that it was a deer. At the sound of the shot, several other deer bounded from the surrounding area. I checked the tracks later and found that the buck which I had been following had not stopped there, but had passed on by the place where four other deer were bedded. I had shot the smallest deer, a male fawn that didn’t weigh over sixty pounds. I was not a very proud hunter as I dragged the animal home.
When a deer runs to a place where feeding deer have left a network of tracks, the trailing hunter is apt to have a slow and difficult task in following his deer into untraveled territory. To be sure, he is following the freshest of the tracks, but it is sometimes next to impossible to know which track is the freshest. There isn’t much a tracker can do about this except to acquire the ability to distinguish the difference in the appearance of tracks of different ages.
Here again there is no rule to follow because so many different factors must be considered. Temperature and humidity affect the apparent freshness of tracks in mud and on bare ground, yet it is usually possible to tell the difference between today’s track and one that is twenty-four hours old. Freezing and thawing will age tracks that are made in snow so that, as a rule, it is easier to detect the fresher of two tracks at that time than when the ground is bare. Experienced trackers are often able to see the difference in tracks one hour old, but most of us are not that good.
Besides freshness there is a distinction in the appearance of different deer tracks to aid us in following an individual. Each deer’s hoof has minor imperfections which set it apart from any other. However, these differences are so small and the hoof impressions so imperfect that we cannot use them to identify any certain deer, but must depend on a track’s size and shape for identification. Few hunters will confuse the track of a two-hundred-pound buck with that of a fifty-pound fawn, yet all things are possible in the woods. I have seen men following sheep, cow and even hog tracks with the expectation of overtaking a deer. These men have a lot to learn before calling themselves deer hunters.
No good tracker will mistake a buck’s track for that of a doe if he is able to see clear, plain impressions of the feet. The toes on a buck’s front feet are more blunt and rounded than those of a doe. It is not always possible for the hunter to see the tracks of these front feet because deer walk in such a manner that the back feet are placed on the impressions of the front feet, obliterating the latter. In young deer, this is almost always true, but as the deer ages, the back feet do not always cover the entire track and the shape of the toes may be seen just ahead of the impressions of the back feet. When deer run or bound in their characteristic manner, the tracks of the back feet do not cover the tracks of the front feet, but the tracks are usually so distorted that their exact shape cannot be determined. The clearest and most distinct tracks will be found where a deer has been feeding, just treading around. Often clear impressions of four feet will be found at these places.
Perhaps an easier or surer way to distinguish between a buck’s and a doe’s trail is to notice the difference in gait while they are walking. The doe’s feet will point straight ahead, while the buck walks with a sort of a swagger which causes him to toe out. This toeing out, while not very pronounced, can easily be seen by the hunter who is looking for this difference.
Many hunters are apt to consider any large track to be that of a buck. This does not always prove to be the case, yet almost any track that measures over three inches in length is almost sure to be a buck’s.
If we notice the size and sex of the deer which we are following and we come to the tracks of other deer, we will have little trouble in keeping on the right track unless we come to tracks made earlier by the same deer or by other deer of the same size and sex. In such cases, we must depend on the difference in the age of the tracks, unless the deer being followed is traveling at a different speed than that of the deer which made the earlier tracks. In any case, the more experience we have in trailing deer, the less trouble we will have in following the one of our choice.
The ability to follow tracks and to read signs becomes doubly important when the hunter wounds a deer. Many times a fatal shot will not drop a deer in its tracks and when the shooter goes to the place where he last saw the animal and does not find a dead deer, or a lot of blood, he is often at a loss to know what to do. He is apt to take a haphazard look around the area, decide that he has missed the shot and leave the area, while the deer may be dead within a hundred yards of the spot.
When a man shoots at a deer, he should not leave the spot where he has been standing until he is sure that he can find the place again. He should fix the place where the deer was located, at the time of the shot, firmly in his mind so that he can go directly there. If he is not woods-wise enough to recognize the place where he has been standing, he should mark it in some way—scuffing his feet or breaking a branch from a nearby bush or tree—and he should mark the direction of his shot. This procedure is not so important if the hunter is shooting in an open area where he can observe the actions of the deer after the shot or if there is snow on the ground so that tracks or any possible blood trail may be plainly seen.
It is important to know the deer’s exact location at the time of the shot, because if a casual search doesn’t turn up the carcass, there will be evidence at that spot if the deer has been hit, and this evidence will often show where and how bad the animal has been wounded. If the deer was standing when shot, this evidence will be quite easy to find and any deductions made from it are apt to be accurate, whereas, if the deer was running, the evidence will be harder to find and any conclusions drawn from it will not be as definite.
When a bullet enters a deer’s body, it cuts off a tuft of hair. If the deer is standing, this tuft of hair will drop to the ground directly under the wound. If the deer is running, this hair will be thrown forward and outward from the animal and will be harder to find. Assuming that the animal was standing, the position of this tuft of hair in relation to the deer’s footprints gives the hunter a good idea of the location of the wound, lengthwise, on the deer. If the hair is near the print of the front foot, he can assume that the wound is in the front leg or shoulder. If it is halfway between the front and rear footprints, he can assume that he has made a paunch shot, while if it is near the print of the rear leg, he has hit it in that leg or in the hip.
The length and color of the hair will give him a clue to the vertical location of the wound. Grey mixed with brown, fairly short hair indicates a solid body shot. Grey mixed with black and white indicates a wound in the brisket. Long white hairs indicate a flank, tail or back of the rear leg shot. Experts can carry this hair identification a good deal further, but it is not necessary because there are other means of checking the location of the wound.
When the bullet emerges from the deer’s body, there will be more or less blood, bone and tissue carried along with it and this debris will fall to the ground at varying distances from the deer. An examination of this matter will often clear any doubts about the conclusions drawn from the examination of the hair. Lung and liver tissue will seldom be mistaken for anything else, even when found in small particles. Sometimes kidney tissue will be mistaken for liver tissue, but such a mistake is not important. Coarse particles of undigested food indicate a paunch shot while the intestinal wound will produce a finer, more liquid matter that can be identified by its odor. There is seldom very much blood drawn out with the bullet, but the color of the droplets is an indication of the severity of the wound. Bright red arterial blood, under direct, intermittent pressure from the heart, will not cease flowing as quickly as the darker venous blood. Splinters of bone may be tentatively identified if other evidence gives the approximate location of the wound.
This detective work is seldom necessary if the hunter has much experience shooting deer, but when it is necessary, it is invaluable.
The expert can tell by the deer’s actions if, and where, it is wounded and in many cases can determine this by the tracks alone. Tracks made by a deer with a broken or badly wounded leg are easily identified. Wounds in different parts of a deer’s body cause it to run in an unnatural manner and these variations in the animal’s gait will show in the tracks. Perhaps the most pronounced of these occurs when the deer is hit in the paunch. In such cases, the tracks will be quite close together and not in line with the direction in which the animal is traveling. This is caused by the deer’s running in a doubled-up position. This is very pronounced if the liver has been ruptured. If the animal can be seen after the shot, it is not necessary to see the tracks in order to identify the position of this type of wound. The animal seems to cover more distance up and down than it does ahead. On the other hand, a deer that has been shot in the heart or lung area, will put on a burst of unnatural speed, running in this manner until it dies. Strangely enough, a superficial wound will sometimes cause this same desperate, unnatural burst of speed.
The hunter who depends on the theory that a deer will always drop its flag when it receives a wound is apt to walk away from a dead or badly wounded deer unless he investigates. Sometimes deer do and sometimes they do not make this motion with their tails and it is always advisable for the hunter to make a thorough investigation of the scene before deciding that he has missed his shot.
Many hunters approach the spot where they fired at a deer with the expectation of finding a lot of blood, if not a carcass. This is seldom the case. External bleeding is usually delayed until the deer has had the time to make several jumps and, if the wound is through a body cavity where the internal collection of blood is possible, it may not be plainly visible on the ground for some distance. If no blood trail is found after following a track for fifty feet from the place where the deer was shot, the hunter should return to that place, making sure he has hit the deer. With this assurance, he will be able to find some trace of blood which he overlooked. With this encouragement, he can follow the trail for greater distances with the knowledge that if the wound is at all serious, the bleeding will increase with distance.
Following a blood trail is a simple matter if there is snow on the ground. Each drop of blood stands out as it is absorbed by the snow and a small amount will spread until it seems as though the deer must surely bleed to death within a short time. On bare ground it is a different proposition. Unless there is profuse bleeding, it is very easy to overlook small amounts of blood and thus lose the trail.
The distribution of blood along a trail will give the hunter some idea of the location of the wound. Superficial and abdominal wounds will sometimes bleed so little that the only place that blood will show on the ground is where it is dislodged from the deer’s body at the end of each jump. If a body cavity is punctured so that blood can be collected there, this blood will often be forced out as the animal’s body contracts at the end of each jump. This blood will be found at varying distances from the track with the distance being regulated by the force of the contractions and the size of the wound. Sometimes the only blood that can be found will be on trees and bushes which the deer has brushed against in passing. This seldom occurs until the deer has stopped running and clotting has slowed the flow to a trickle. Very few hunters will follow a wounded deer long enough for it to reach this stage of bleeding.
One of the more difficult tasks of trailing a wounded deer which I have attempted occurred early in the season. Two deer were standing in a hardwood growth about seventy-five yards from my position. I shot at one of them and they both ran. I could follow their course with my eyes, but could not observe their actions and the trees and underbrush prevented me from obtaining a second shot. I was as sure as a hunter can be that I had made a solid hit in or near the shoulder or lung area. I was so sure of my shot that I did not go to the spot where the deer had been standing, but angled off in the direction of their flight with the intention of picking up a blood trail and following it for perhaps fifty yards to my dead deer. I found no trail, with or without blood. The ground was very dry, covered with dry leaves. The squirrels had been burrowing in these leaves so that it was virtually impossible to follow any kind of a track, let alone find one. Not understanding the lack of a blood trail, I returned to the spot where I had been standing and from there to the first location of the deer. At this spot, I found a tuft of hair which proved that I had hit the deer. Beyond the hair, I found two slivers of bone and a small piece of lung tissue. I identified one of these bone slivers as a piece of rib. The other I thought was a piece of a shoulder blade. This tentative identification of bone fragments was prompted by an effort to explain the lack of a discernible blood trail. (I was using a .38/55 rifle and the bullet from one of these guns usually leaves an exit wound which permits free bleeding.) About the only possible deductions I could make from the evidence at hand were that I had hit the deer high in the lung cavity, that bleeding would be internal until that cavity filled and, since the lung had been pierced, the deer would die.
I followed that deer from track to track, never leaving a known track until I had found the next one, with only an occasional drop of blood to assure me that I was on the right trail. After a two-hundred-yard trail I found blood enough to be seen from a standing position. When I reached that point, the deer lay dead about twenty feet farther on.
It is well for the hunter to remember that a wounded deer is not a normal deer and that it will not act as normal deer.
Rest is nature’s remedy for sick and injured animals. (There are herbs in the woods which might be beneficial to a wounded deer, but I have never seen any evidence to show that deer know about, or use, them.) Since rest is what the deer desires, he will head for some thicket where he will be comparatively safe from any disturbance. This place will usually be close to water, for water is necessary to alleviate the fever caused by the wound.
The time elapsed between the wound and the time that the deer heads for seclusion is an indication of the severity of the wound. This may be best observed when the wounded deer is one of a group. The longer the wounded member remains with the group, the less severe is the wound.
The idea of waiting for a wounded deer to find a resting place before following it may be sound in theory, but I prefer to start trailing as soon as I have hit one. It will usually require considerable time to overtake the animal and time is something which is not too plentiful during the deer hunting season. Aside from humane reasons, I want to dispatch the wounded animal as soon as possible and before fever has progressed far enough to affect the meat. The time that is necessary for a wounded deer to “stiffen up” so that it can be easily overtaken is usually so long (often overnight) that the meat will be full of fever-fighting antibodies and it will be undesirable, if not unfit for food. This is no objection when the hunter is hunting deer solely as trophies.
As a rule, deer which are seriously wounded are fairly easy to hunt. An exception is the deer which has received an abdominal wound. While this type of wound is nearly always fatal, the deer, if followed, will travel for long distances and is often difficult to approach. Death will often be delayed for several days, so I always make special effort to overtake and kill a deer wounded in this way.